Historically, when folks thought of the Little Manistee, they thought of trout and steelhead; every tributary large enough to have a name is a designated trout streams. But trout weren't always the main focus of anglers. Before settlement, the Little Manistee was inhabited by Artic grayling, which were driven to extinction in the late 1880s or early 1890s. Extreme habitat loss from logging, fishing overharvest and possibly competition from introduced trout all likely contributed to the grayling's demise.
The Little Manistee has been about trout - and in more recent decades, salmon - ever since. Brook, brown and rainbow trout had all become naturalized in the stream by around the turn of the 20th century. The first recorded brook trout stocking took place in 1897, though an unsuccessful stocking of 3,000 Atlantic salmon occurred in 1873.
Steelhead were first stocked in the watershed in 1895 when 5,000 fry were planted in at least one tributary to the Little Manistee River, though exactly which tributary (or tributaries) is unknown. Steelhead had been stocked in other Lake Michigan tributaries previously and were returning as adults to other rivers, so it's possible steelhead were already established in the Little Manistee by naturally reproduced fish that strayed from their home waters.
There are no records of early brown trout stockings in the river, though fisheries biologists believe that they must have been stocked before the turn of the century.
From the mid-1930s to the mid-1970s, brook, brown and rainbow trout were stocked to enhance the fishery. Then, in 1967, everything changed as salmon were introduced. Since that time, few of these trout species have been stocked. Some steelhead stocking continued in the 1980s - an experimental stocking as well as some summer-run fish. Now, the steelhead run, usually in the 10,000 range annually - consists of naturalized, wild fish. Brown trout natural reproduction is more than sufficient to support an excellent fishery.
Both Coho and Chinook salmon were stocked in the Little Manistee most years from 1967 until 1992 when Coho stockings were discontinued. Two attempts, in addition to the 1873 try, to introduce Atlantic salmon failed. Since 1982, the Little Manistee weir has been operated annually and it serves as the main source of steelhead eggs for the Department of Natural Resources' hatchery system.
These days, the Little Manistee is largely a salmon/steelhead stream in most anglers' eyes.
"It gets the largest wild Coho run of any Lake Michigan tributary - in the thousands," said Mark Tonello, the fisheries biologist who manages the Little Manistee. "They run later than one would expect, in late November, December - even January and sometimes February. We occasionally see them in April when we're taking steelhead eggs."
The Little Manistee is a highly regarded steelhead river, though it is closed to fishing annually from January 1 to April 1 to protect the native run. "That's been in place for decades," Tonello said.
So what happened to the trout? Nothing. They're there.
"The Little Manistee River is just not as well established for brown trout in angling circles, despite the fact it has both good numbers of brown trout and big brown trout," Tonello said. "It has a phenomenal population despite the fact they have to compete with steelhead and salmon. It's awesome."
Except for the stretch from Johnson's Bridge to Spencer's Bridge - which is flies-only water - standard Type IV trout regulations apply.